How to Thaw Frozen Meat
The sun is out, the whole family is over, and you’ve got big plans for the grill. Maybe it’s a pack of ribeyes, or a whole chicken destined for the rotisserie. But if you’ve been storing the main attraction in your freezer, you’ll need to make sure your meat is thawed before you even fire up the grill. It’s a simple concept, sure, but there are big risks that come with thawing meat if you’re not following the proper procedures.
You never want meat to enter what the USDA calls the “Danger Zone” — that is, anywhere between 40°F and 140°F, which is the optimal temperature range for exponential bacterial growth. These microbes, which are naturally found in raw meat, can cause severe foodborne illness if allowed to spread. Though bacteria within meat are made dormant when frozen, thawing brings them close to the “Danger Zone” where they can rapidly multiply. The key, then, is finding the sweet spot of fully thawing a piece of meat while still keeping it at a safe temperature. There are 3 main ways to thaw frozen meat, and we’ll walk you through the details of each so you’re prepared for the next BBQ.
Thawing Meat in the Refrigerator
Hmm, you know what seems like a great candidate for thawing meat while maintaining a food-safe temperature? A refrigerator! Refrigerators should be set at or below 40°F — the lower end of the USDA’s “Danger Zone” — making for a perfect thawing environment. Ensuring your fridge is actually set to the correct temperature is as easy as setting up a hanging thermometer and checking it every now and then. While this method for thawing meat is unquestionably the safest and arguably the easiest, it’s also the slowest and requires some planning in advance.
Simply pull your meat from the freezer, place it on a pan or plate, then set that in the refrigerator. From there, the meat will defrost while remaining safely outside the “Danger Zone.” (Does anyone else have a certain Kenny Loggins hit stuck in their head?) It’s important to set your meat on something that can catch its defrosted drippings because they’ll contain bacteria-riddled juices from the raw meat that you don’t want contaminating the fridge. Depending on what you set the meat in, immediately wash or discard it once the meat has thawed.
How Long Does It Take for Meat to Thaw in the Fridge?
It’s a good idea to give any cut of meat about 24 hours to fully thaw in the fridge, but expect larger items like a whole chicken or turkey to require up to 3–4 days. Once thawed, your food should last a few days in the refrigerator before hitting the grill or heading back to the freezer if a change of plans occurs. Just keep in mind that this is the only thawing method that leaves food safe to be refrozen, and that doing so will likely cause some loss in flavor quality (more on that below).
Thawing Meat in Water
Planning to thaw meat in the refrigerator shouldn’t be an issue when you’ve got a big cookout circled on the calendar, but when it comes to throwing together dinner for the kids on a random Wednesday night, that much forethought is often hard to come by. Fortunately, there’s a way to defrost meat that doesn’t involve waiting overnight. Water is your best friend in this instance, whether you choose to place meat under running water or submerge it in the sink or a bowl.
Thawing Meat with Running Water
Start by making sure your meat is inside a bag that’s completely sealed — water that’s allowed to flow in and out will spread the meat’s microbes throughout the sink, which is far from sanitary.
Place the sealed meat either in a bowl or directly in the sink, setting it in a shallow amount of water. If thawing in the sink itself, you can place a towel over the drain to retain more water in the sink.
Run a steady stream of cold water over the meat; not full-blast from the faucet, but more than a slow drip.
We know what you’re thinking: “Wait, wouldn’t hot water do the job quicker?” It certainly would, but then the meat would likely rise above the 40°F threshold and enter the “Danger Zone” where microbes begin to multiply without you even noticing. A constant, gentle stream of cold water, on the other hand, will thaw the meat without bringing it above 40°F. This should take an hour or so, but the downside is you have to stand by and monitor the water’s temperature (not to mention the incremental increase on your water bill).
Thawing Meat by Submerging It in Water
Again, place the meat in a fully sealed bag to prevent bacteria from spreading in the sink.
Fill your sink or bowl with enough cold water to fully submerge the meat.
After 30 minutes — or 20 minutes if you’re working in an outdoor kitchen that’s 90°F or hotter — drain and refill the sink with cold water. Repeat until the meat has thawed.
Like the running-water method, it’s important to use cold water so the meat doesn’t creep too far into the bacterial “Danger Zone” between 40°F and 140°F. By that same token, you must change out the water every half hour; if not, it’ll continue to climb toward room temperature and bring the meat with it. Both water methods are likely to flirt with or even briefly surpass the 40°F line, so you should cook and eat immediately after thawing.
Thawing Meat in the Microwave
Though microwaves defrost meat the fastest and are technically food-safe, we don’t recommend going that route. Microwaves will probably slightly cook some parts of meat, bringing those sections into the “Danger Zone,” leaving behind a warmed-over taste, and resulting in an uneven cook. If you find yourself in a major pinch and have no other choice but to thaw meat using your microwave’s defrost settings, you should cook it as soon as possible to kill the microbes that will undoubtedly be germinating. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t refreeze or refrigerate meat thawed in the microwave.
How NOT to Thaw Meat
You now know how to safely thaw frozen meat, but let’s take a moment to look at 2 common thawing practices that should be avoided:
Never thaw meat by leaving it out on the counter.
Never Thaw meat in hot water.
Both methods pose health risks because they’re bound to bring meat into the dreaded “Danger Zone” where microbes quickly spread. Leaving it on the counter removes the crucial element of temperature control, while hot water will send meat above 40°F faster than you’d realize. Additionally, the USDA states that a piece of raw meat shouldn’t be left at room temperature for more than 2 hours, which is likely to occur when left unattended on the counter or in hot water.
Refreezing Thawed Meat
While it’s safe to refreeze meat thawed in the refrigerator, each refreeze negatively affects quality and flavor. Moisture is drawn out from deeper inside the meat with each thaw and refreeze, forming large water crystals on the surface that can puncture the cells walls and lead to even more lost juices.
Remember that it’s safe to refreeze defrosted meat only if it was thawed in the refrigerator. Methods involving water and the microwave may give rise to a minor amount of bacterial growth, which happens quickly and means the food should be cooked immediately. Read up on our guide to freezing meat for more do’s and don’ts, and remember to plan your thaws ahead of time whenever possible.